I was at Dordt College in Sioux Center, IA this week for the Iowa Conference on Presidential Politics. This interdisciplinary conference brought together political scientists, historians, and other specialists to present research on the presidency and presidential politics.

The event drew little attention from the media or campaigns, despite the location and timing -- but academics are used to this. Larry Lessig spoke on Thursday night. On Friday, Rick Santorum spent over an hour speaking to a few dozen scholars and a few dozen Dordt students -- not more than 150 in all. This was not his stump speech. Rather, Santorum offered some personal reflections on the experience of running for president and the pros and cons of Iowa's outsized role in the nomination process.

Rather than unleash a stream of 20 tweets containing my reaction to Santorum's presentation, I thought it better to offer a more sustained reflection here for the 3 or 4 of you who might find this beneficial or interesting.

When I was 17, I attended a student leadership conference at an American Baptist college in suburban Philadelphia. One day, the organzers bused our group down to Washington for a tour of the Capitol and other sites. The day included a talk by Pennsylvania's junior U.S. Senator. In a briefing room in one of the Senate office buildings, Rick Santorum spoke to our group about public service, the political process, and the role of faith in politics. To be honest, I don't remember much from that day. But considering how my own interest in religion (which had been perfunctory) and politics (which had been ambivalent) intensified in the years following and continuing throughout my personal and professional life, I can't help but wonder what seeds may have been planted that day in July 1998.

With Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa

With Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa

As my political and religious liberalism intensified dramatically in the mid-2000s, I began to regard Santorum with disdain, taking cues from whatever fahshionable elites I was reading at the time. I'm sure I rolled my eyes at Santorum's book, "It Takes a Family." When sex columnist Dan Savage led the effort to create Santorum's infamous Google problem, I probably thought it more clever than obnoxious.

These years later, however, I have a more balanced view of Santorum. I find his devotion to family, Church, and country admirable even though I still disagree with him about many important issues. I think that, by and large, Santorum has been singled out for criticism unfarily by the cultural left. This is not to say the left shouldn't criticize him. I just don't think it's right that he has become a punchline when his views don't seem to differ markedly from most other Republican polticians.

I am also intrigued by the theme of his 2014 book, Blue Collar Conservatives. My interest is less in how the GOP can do more for working class whites than in how Santorum's faith could influence his politics. The idea of the book shows a desire on Santorum's part to do something politically beneficial. But the timid policy proscripions and the failure of the book to change the conversation (let alone its author) reveals, at least in my view, a missed opportunity for religious conservatives in politics to show a little more respect for (or at least a little less disdain for) the broad ecumenical Christian perspective on economics. (For instance, Satnroum favors a modest minimum wage increase, but he seems opposed to changing or even challenging the way the the state and the market distribute the wealth and income our economy creates.)

In the Q & A at Dordt College yesterday, I enjoyed hearing Santorum give unscripted and thoughtful comments on number of issues.

On the subject of America's global leadership, Santorum echoed familiar conservative themes. He is very worried about radical Islam, of course. But he said little that would endear him to Muslims in this country or anywhere else. I can't give exact quotations, but it was stuff like, The West has been fighting radical Islam for a thousand years... Mohammed's kingdom was political and Jesus' was not... Etc. His foreign policy comments were not particularly novel or interesting, in my view.

On the subject of immigration, Santroum gave one of the more thoughtful and coherent defenses of the nativist view. It was a mostly ecominc argument, stressing that our economy and society should use immigration stragetically so that citizens and a proper number of newcomers have the best shot at prosperity. Santorum claimed that the United States will receive 100 million immigrants by 2050 and suggested that the dynamics of our economy, social welfare programs, and workforce participaion rates may struggle to function at optimal levels.

One young man asked Santorum about Pope Francis. I was interestd to hear his answer, because I found that after a brief flirtation with expressing strong disagreement or disapproval with the pope, Republican presidential candidates have realized that it is unhelpful to critize someone with such moral authority. And while the conservative media continues to publish some breathtaking attacks against Pope Francis that evidently generate a lot of clicks and pageviews among the kinds of people who will vote in GOP primaries, candidates and elected officials themselves do not attack the pope as fiercely. Santorum expressed appreciation for the way Pope Francis has connected with people who are not religious or who have abandoned faith or the church. He said that, while he was initially taken aback by some of the things the pope said, he now realizes that A) the context of Francis' remarks are not always presented well in the media and B) the pope is speaking to various audiences with different kinds of speech and rhetoric. Santorum said he disagrees with some of the pope's policy proposals, of course, but I found his overall attitude toward the pope to be fairly respectful and appropriate for a Republican Catholic politican -- or any politican, for that matter.

Santorum complained that the media only gives softball questions to Democrats. So I asked him the softball question of the day: "Mr. Santorum," I said. "You served two full terms before running for president. But they say that every senator looks in the mirror and sees a president. Given the experience of Obama, Cruz, Paul, and Rubio, what do you think of politicians using the Senate as nothing more than a platform for their presidential ambitions?" I really set him up to slam Rubio, but Santorum demurred. Only a few senators are running, he said. But then he reflected further. In his second term, he said, people began to talk to him about running for president. "I was in my 40s. It was flattering, but on some level I still didn't feel ready." Without signaling out Rubio or Cruz for specific criticism, Santorum did go on to say that we should prefer a president with more experience and wisdom than young, ambitious, celebrity-politicans typically possess.

I would have liked to ask Santorum about how his faith influences his economic views. After the Georgetown Jesuits slammed Paul Ryan in 2012 for his claim that GOP budget priorities align well with Catholic social teaching, something quite remarkable happened. Ryan took the critcism to heart, met with Catholic leaders, disavowed his erstwhile Ayn Rand discipleship, and genuinely tried to learn more about Catholic social teaching. Now, this does not mean Ryan changed his positions on any key issues. But it does indicate that he has a teachable spirit and a sincere willingness to at least hear his critics, particularly when they argue from his own faith tradition. Santorum, as far as I know, has not responded in the same way to that kind of criticism.

Overall, though, I find Santorum to be a compelling figure. He finished a fairly strong second in the 2012 nominating contest. I don't fully understand why he is not a more desirable candidate for conservatvie Republicans. And, while his prospects do not look promising at this point, I would not underestimate him. He seems to genuinely enjoy retail-politics campaigning, and money matters less in Iowa than in most other places. If he is still in the race on caucus night, I expect him to receive more support than his polling numbers reflect.

Ever the optimist, Santorum pointed out that many Iowa caucus goers do not make up their minds until the last moment. "I don't care if I'm not your first choice," he said. "As long as I'm your last choice."